A life dedicated to numbers

Pali Lehohla left Stats SA last month at the end of his contract. He had been SA's statistician-general for 17 years.
Pali Lehohla left Stats SA last month at the end of his contract. He had been SA's statistician-general for 17 years.
Image: SANDILE NDLOVU

The career of retired statistician-general Pali Lehohla might have started by chance, but the former chief number cruncher has no regrets about dedicating his entire working life to numbers.

Lehohla left Statistics South Africa at the end of last month following the expiry of his contract, ending a 17-year term at its helm.

He had been with the organisation since 1995, and took over when its former head Mark Orkin left after a five-year stint.

Although he donated his trademark yellow suit to a United Nations unit in New York, retiring from public life isn't one of the things the youngest of six brothers was considering.

He joked that his three sons in their 30s haven't given him grandchildren yet.

Stats SA periodically releases all sorts of data that shed light on what is happening in our society - including figures on marriages and divorces, household spending patterns, employment trends, births and what is killing us.

"I have been complaining quiet a lot that people are not using the data. I am sure my successor [Risenga Maluleke] will complain similarly. So there must be somebody who helps others to use the data," he said in an interview with Sowetan yesterday.

He said he hoped Stats SA's statistics would be incorporated into the academic curriculum to influence public policy choices.

Lehohla reckoned that bodies such as municipalities were not using the data that statisticians produced to plan the delivery of services, and tend to use it more to monitor developmental trends.

Sometimes public spending is not informed by evidence. For example, The Times recently reported that some newly-built schools in the Eastern Cape would shut down because they had very few pupils.

Politicians have not always been happy when Lehohla used figures to make public commentary about policy failures.

"As a statistician-general you can't go into public policy to shed light. But now I can go and advise, and say 'prescribe this policy because data suggests that it can be successful'."

Lehohla got into his field by accident as his alma mater, the University of Lesotho, didn't have geology when he went there in the late 1970s.

It was the vacation work he did at customs in Lesotho, recording the quantity of goods and services, that got him hooked on statistics.

The first census he ran as a qualified demographer was in 1985 for the Bophuthatswana homeland, where he settled in 1982 after escaping political persecution in his native country.

The success of the census attracted the attention of the apartheid mandarins in Central Statistical Services - Stats SA's predecessor.

Now he's leaving Stats SA in the hands of Maluleke who he helped recruit in 1996. The institution is now much bigger and more professional than the one he joined in 1995.

His only career regret was the error in the consumer price index figures in 2003, which he said caused people a lot of suffering.

The figures were higher and had a knock on effect on the cost of home loan repayments, and those who invested in long-term bonds lost out when the figures were readjusted.

"I took that as a moment to be transparent and anchor a transparency culture in Stats SA as an institution.

"I appropriated mistakes and used them as learning platforms," he said.

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